COMBINED AIR AND SPACE OPERATIONS CENTER, MIDDLE EAST—As the grainy intelligence video unfolds, one of Iraq's many jauntily decorated trucks rolls to a stop carrying passengers who are, according to U.S. military officials, insurgents from outside of Baghdad. An unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, has detected infrared signals—traces of heat—on the antiaircraft artillery gun mounted on the flatbed, which suggests that it has been recently fired.
At the same time, there are some unsuspecting neighbors strolling by the area. "Here you have three people who have just been shooting Americans," explains Col. Gary Crowder, commander of the 609th Air and Space Operations Center, pointing at the truck on the screen. "But there"—he points at the unsuspecting walkers—"you have innocent people. The question now is, how do you engage"—meaning to strike—"when, and under what circumstances?" In short, he says, "the question now is, what do we do?"
In this case, the answer comes serendipitously. The neighbors walk a safe distance away, and the insurgents pile out of the truck and head to a nearby tree line. "There they are, giving themselves high-fives for shooting Americans," says Crowder, offering his narration of the video. "Aaand...," he pauses for a moment. There is a bright flash. "That's the A-10." The powerful ground-attack jet is unseen, but its effect is evident as the insurgents vanish in a burst of light. Their truck meets a similar fate.
The strike is the result of fast intelligence analysis and a lucky break. Such breaks seemed hard to come by as recently as a year ago, when America was harshly rebuked for a spate of highly publicized civilian casualties in Afghanistan. President Hamid Karzai angrily charged the United States with being cavalier about Afghan lives during a year in which the number of Air Force bombs dropped in Iraq and Afghanistan increased to 5,019, from 371 in 2004. Similar complaints have come from Iraqi government officials as the United States has increased airstrikes targeting insurgent bomb-making factories, safe houses, and weapons stockpiles.
In some cases, the U.S. military says it is confident that allegations of civilian casualties are false, intended to fan local anger. It is hard, says Crowder, to counter the claims of an insurgent in Afghanistan who drags a body to the scene of a bombing, "throws some toy animals there and says, 'Hey, they're killing civilians.'"
But behind the scenes, the outcry has been a wake-up call for a U.S. Air Force that opened the Iraq war with "shock and awe" megastrikes. Today, it is grappling with an evolving counterinsurgency role that requires pinpoint hits against discrete targets, such as a mobile group of insurgents. One particular source of tension has been getting the Air Force's pilot-in-the-cockpit culture to embrace UAVs, which are less costly and, in some cases, more effective for both reconnaissance and attack missions. Just last month, the Air Force was publicly rebuked by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who charged it with being "stuck in old ways of doing business." He added that getting the force to adapt and to send more UAVs and other assets to the Middle East has been "like pulling teeth."
Today, at the combat operations air center, where the Air Force makes its key targeting decisions and coordinates the air wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, officials say that they are working hard to hone "an airman's view" of counterinsurgency as more UAVs are put to work. U.S. News was granted access to the operations center on the condition that its location wasn't mentioned because of host-country political sensitivities (although its whereabouts has been widely reported).
Outside an innocuous-looking warehouse, a wind chime made of artillery shell casings tinkles softly in the breeze. Inside, on the hectic combat operations floor, Air Force personnel sit at computer terminals. On the wall in front are large maps of Iraq and Afghanistan, marked with locations of UAVs and military action. Smaller screens display real-time video from Predator drones (or, during occasional quiet spells, broadcasts of sports events). On individual sets of computer screens, analysts monitor dozens of secure chat rooms in which troops process observations of Predator feeds. One shows two men riding bicycles. Another is trained on a high-walled compound with palm trees, where nothing seems to be happening.
But it's all potentially useful intelligence for analysts, who make air targeting decisions here, hundreds or even thousands of miles from the physical battlefield. They spend much of their time here trying to establish a "pattern of life" around potential targets—recording such things as the comings and goings of friends, school hours, and market times. Despite the distance, the real-time video feeds often give them a better vantage point than an Army unit has just down the street from a group of insurgents.
And finding insurgents—what officials here call "going hunting" or "putting warheads on foreheads"—is now a major focus of the Air Force and a prime mission for the armed Predators. "What we're doing in a counterinsurgency war is looking for individuals and small groups," says Lt. Col. Walt Manwill, chief of combat operations here. "To do that, we have to find them, and make sure they are who we think they are."
With that emphasis must come caution to avoid killing or wounding civilians, officials here add. In the Air Force's counterinsurgency-driven combat operations, casualty avoidance can be the targeting team's most time-intensive task. Says one military official: "We're definitely in quality-control mode, especially for Afghanistan."
Careful calculations. The center painstakingly plans its strikes, says an officer in the targeting team. Analysts calculate the size of bomb fragments and the distance they travel from the strike site, using detailed maps and video footage to gauge potential for human casualties and property damage. In another area, analysts don 3D glasses to read maps that show precise heights of palm trees and the walls of any given compound to help determine "collateral concerns."
Air Force personnel also are finding ways to be more accurate. In Iraq, they found that insurgents would shoot mortars and quickly make their getaways in cars moving at 50 to 70 mph. Because of lag time, laser-guided bombs were missing their targets. "We decided that we've got to have a weapon that can hit something moving pretty fast," says Lt. Gen. Gary North, air component commander for U.S. Central Command. "We were tired of dropping a weapon that falls short."
One solution would be to use bigger bombs, with a larger blast radius, but the downside is that those raise the likelihood of civilian casualties. So in just eight months, the Air Force developed another variant of a laser-guided type of bomb. The weapon was was recently put to use in Iraq. The Air Force is also ramping up its production of Reapers, the ominously named larger cousin of the Predator that can carry more bombs and Hellfire missiles. With real-time video feeds and the long periods they can loiter over an area, UAVs give Air Force targeters more precision and flexibility in attacks.
Despite such high-tech resources, officials say some of the most important Air Force advances of late are decidedly low-tech. Until recently, the Air Force's smallest bomb weighed 500 pounds and carried about 192 pounds of explosives. But airmen adopted a Marine trick: Pouring concrete in the nose of the bomb, leaving less than 30 pounds of explosives, mainly in the tail. That shortens the range of flying bomb fragments by as much as a third, reducing the chances of hitting bystanders.
The Air Force has come up with other adaptations, such as a longer bomb fuse. Delaying an explosion by just a few milliseconds can mean that a bomb gets buried deeper into the ground before exploding, buffering its explosive force. "A lot of this is ad-hoc," Crowder says. He notes, for instance, that one of the innovations early in the war came from a staff sergeant who screwed a piece of wood onto a Predator frame and wrapped it with wire to make an antenna so his AC130 gunship could receive the Predator's video feed. "So when his gunship shows up, he knows, 'This is a mosque, and these are the bad guys,' " says Crowder.
True to counterinsurgency tactics, the Air Force is mindful of operating in a way that tries to avoid damaging economic conditions. So, for instance, planners try to operate in a way that doesn't obstruct commercial air traffic passing over Afghanistan, where fees received for airline flyovers from other countries are a top source of income for the government.
A key task now is "taking intelligence and then focusing it like a power hose to whoever needs it at that time," Crowder says. At the urging of the Pentagon, the number of Predators available in Iraq and Afghanistan has doubled in a little more than a year. Along with increasing their numbers, the emphasis is on using the UAVs more efficiently, particularly in Afghanistan, which has roughly one third of the Predator resources as Iraq. One complication: finding enough pilots to "fly" the drones, which are operated remotely from the ground. Air Force officials have complained that being directed to churn out so many UAV pilots leaves them short in other areas.
Like the Army, the Air Force finds itself stretched to meet manpower needs while being called upon to quickly absorb lessons from counterinsurgency fights on two fronts. This command center is where the Air Force has to make it work, and there is little room for error. Says Crowder: "The mission is so complex and so different from anything the Air Force has ever done."